A Hero of Our Time

As the British dance critic Richard Buckle said, “Much as I liked [him] underneath, I began to dislike him on the surface.” That’s at least better than the other way around. There was no moderation in Lincoln Kirstein’s reactions to others or in theirs to him. He was all hyperbole and paradox. He could be woundingly cruel and manipulative, but so transparent in his machinations that people seemed to find this quality almost endearing, as if he couldn’t help himself. He would turn against friends for no good reason and he terrified strangers. He was a glowering, ungainly giant in a dark suit with shaved head and jutting jaw—the familiar analogy was a Roman senator. But as the heir of a department store fortune his generosity as a patron was clearly boundless, like his insecurity. Nick Jenkins in The New Yorker, after Kirstein’s death in 1996, noted his contrary nature, saying Kirstein “sought to be retiring, but he was all the more noticeable as he tried to be invisible.” It was just as Martha Graham had said. “What I do not think you know,” she told him, “is really how much people can and do love you, feel your warmth and your great dearness, which you try too hard to hide.”

The encomia have been arriving this spring, for his centenary. He is credited with bringing ballet to America, which was not quite true because there were regional companies, and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had been traveling the country playing opera houses and high school auditoriums by the time Kirstein and the twenty-nine-year-old George Balanchine, whom he persuaded to come to New York, founded their Ballet Society. But it was their efforts that, in time, created a truly American style of dancing. It’s fascinating to learn from Martin Duberman’s biography that, in Paris as an aspiring impresario in the mold of Diaghilev immersing himself in dance, Kirstein at first preferred Léonide Massine, Nijinsky’s successor at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (and as Diaghilev’s lover).

No doubt it helped that Massine was bisexual and beautiful. But he was a minor choreographer, modern in the vein of Michel Fokine—akin in art to Kirstein’s friend the quasi-Surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew, whose work never really strained convention. With Apollo, on the other hand, Balanchine announced a new kind of modernism in ballet, one that transformed classicism in the radical way that Picasso did. Kirstein overcame his first inclination and saw the right path forward.

At the same time I suspect that Balanchine’s genius for modernizing classical forms made Kirstein more comfortable endorsing the sort of representational artists, like Tchelitchew or Paul Cadmus or Elie Nadelman, whose focus was, like his, on the body. Kirstein thought abstractionists like Jackson Pollock were bad decorators whose “every lucky accident of the brush” was hailed as “a sort of extra dividend of creation.” Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, warned him not to equate good art with “a preoccupation with the human body…

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